Gallery Bruno Bischofberger

“Collaborations” brought together three artists with quite different artistic backgrounds, and representing almost three generations. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and Andy Warhol form an illustrious group, and one approached the show with high expectations, yet the results of these team efforts are disappointing. The paintings, all 1984, are essentially no more than the products of addition. Basquiat’s scribbles, Clemente’s sensuous figures and faces, and Warhol’s silkscreen techniques all display visual brilliance, but rarely do they engage in any real dialogue or the kind of interplay that would give them a new dimension. Instead, they sit beside and on top of each other, pieces in a collage whose different parts fail to contribute to any common theme. For the most part the different artists’ bits of ideas are linked only on the level of composition. Involuntarily, one found oneself wondering what occasion gave rise to these collaborations, and what the artists intended by them. Were they the result of the artists’ mutual fascination with each other’s work, or was it a mood that created them, a desire for amusement and adventure?

The catalogue for the exhibition provides no answer to these questions, for it contains neither interpretive nor anecdotal commentary. A group portrait of the three artists, however, presents them in remarkably withdrawn, self-contained poses, reinforcing the impression the paintings give of unrelated, confused coexistence. The problem is not with the quality of the painting in each piece—in fact, had the illegitimate children of this artistic union not been shaped so well, their cross-bred nature might have been more refreshing. Instead, the respect each man has for the work of the others seems to have been great enough that each essentially stuck to his own visual language and only rarely and hesitantly intervened in the vision of his partners.

Basquiat seems most to shake up the works with his reactions and comments—which is fitting, considering the graffiti-like scribbles that form his style. With a few strokes he superimposes a grimacing mask on one of Clemente’s pensive faces, giving it a demonic air (In Bianco); or he “undresses” two elegant silkscreened fashion models by Warhol, mischievously providing them with scatological suggestions of breasts, pubes, and buttocks (Horizontal Painting).

Apart from these gestures, however, the hybrid, anarchic element of collaboration is suppressed, even in paintings that seem deliberately to evoke chaos, such as Pimple Head, Origin of Cotton, and Premonition. The work’s formal bravura tames its anarchy, and since no true synthesis is aspired to, it is not surprising that the best paintings are those most tamed, those in which the contributions of the individual artists are most clearly themselves—the serial paintings Pure and Pole Star, for example.

I’d like to stress my pleasure that these paintings exist, especially Alba’s Breakfast. My objections are those of a disappointed viewer who expected more of them, but who knows that between expectation and artwork lies a gap in which life powerfully works its own ways.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Ruth Füglistaller and Ron Lieber.